“How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig (2017)

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“I am old.”

It was years ago when I first picked up a Matt Haig book, The Humans, thinking it sounded like a funny concept. I wasn’t prepared for what a profoundly wise and beautiful book it was, nor that he would become such an important part of my life, and the lives of countless other readers. I’ve plowed through his stuff since, and we finally now arrive at his latest offering, How to Stop Time. Everyone else seems to have read this a couple of months ago, so I’m a bit behind, but nonetheless, here it is. And it was worth waiting for.

Tom Hazard was born in 1581 and is still alive in 2017, although only looks about forty years old. He is an alba, a person born with a condition that means they age very slowly. It is a difficult life and one that involves having to constantly move around and change identity so people don’t notice that you don’t age, a task made all the more difficult by the modern world.

Tom works, reluctantly, with the Albatross Society who find other albas and protect them from scientists who would long to learn the secret of advanced lifespans, but he’s had enough and asks to be retired. He takes up a position teaching history at a London school, where he finds himself smitten with the beautiful French teacher Camille. But Camille is sure she recognises Tom from somewhere – somewhen – else, and Tom is reminded of the fact that any “mayfly” (normally aging human) who finds out about the albas tends not to have their lives cut even shorter…

One of the risks of writing books about people who have spent a long time in our history is the temptation to have them stumble across every major historical figure and befriend them. Haig resists this, and it is far more a story of the ordinary people. However, that’s not to say there aren’t famous cameos, but they are kept to a respectable minimum. Tom works for Shakespeare briefly, and travels to Australia with Captain Cook, but otherwise his interactions with history’s great and good are downplayed. He meets the Fitzgeralds in a French bar in the 1920s, and the Dr Hutchinson he meets in 1891 was a real man, but most everyone else is thoroughly normal.

In the same manner as the non-fiction series of history books by Ian Mortimer, history is brought to life by these interactions with the “ordinary people”. We experience witch hunts, plague, the jazz age, voyages of discovery and Elizabethan entertainment from the ground level, with descriptions that conjure up all the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. Haig paints an immersive, exciting world, and it’s an honour to be able to join him in exploring it.

As with everything Matt Haig writes, it’s phenomenally profound and beautiful with a lot to say about the nature of humanity, particularly with how we don’t change, loss, love and aging. It’s bang up to date, with mentions of fake news and Donald Trump, and Tom’s worry that the 21st century is just turning into a cheap copy of the 20th. Via Tom, Haig argues that humanity has not advanced in a straight line from idiocy to enlightenment, but that it’s been more of a rollercoaster, although there’s a fear we’re heading into a new Dark Ages, with new susperstitions and witch hunts under different names with different targets happening once again. There is, however, in there somewhere a sense of hope, and an exploration of why we should keep on living and trying to better ourselves. One line I adored, as a bibliophile, was, “Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.”

And with people like Matt Haig still writing, I feel the world is a little safer still.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Turning Forty” by Mike Gayle (2013)

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Life begins?

Life begins?

“Wiping my hand against the steamed-up window of the taxi I press my nose against the cold glass to get a better look at the worn but sturdy façade of my destination.”

Despite still occasionally getting asked for ID in Waitrose when stocking up on alcohol, I am actually a mere fortnight away from being twenty-eight-years-old. As such, a book titled Turning Forty may seem to have little between its covers that could interest me. As it is, it’s written by Mike Gayle, one of the favourite writers, and is the sequel to his book I read probably about ten years ago, Turning Thirty. Despite being a follow up, with the same characters ten years on, it doesn’t seem necessary to have to remember the first book, as I can recall very few specific details about it, just that I liked it.

Turning Forty is the tale of Matt Beckford, a thirty-nine-year-old IT industry professional who appears to have it all – wonderful wife, high-flying job that takes him around the world, and he’s just bought himself a shed. Frankly, he’s made it. But then his world comes crashing down around him, and a combination of a breakdown from the stress of his job, and the final acceptance from both himself and his wife Lauren that they don’t love each other anymore, sees him now facing his fortieth birthday divorced, broke and unemployed. With nothing else for it, he returns to his family home in Birmingham where his parents are happy to see him but concerned. Matt, however, has come up with an insane plan – he’s going to find his old on-off girlfriend Ginny and get back with her.

Fate, however, intervenes. He does indeed find Ginny again, and despite rumours of marriage, she’s still single. They embark on a whirlwind romance and book tickets to travel the globe, as they should’ve done when they were young, but she very quickly calls time on the budding relationship. Broken once more, Matt starts to wonder if his life will ever get any better.

The book, from what I remember, mimics the plot of Turning Thirty, where Matt returns home just before his thirtieth birthday to find his old friends and, as this time, rekindle things with Ginny. As you can guess from this, it’s a story about the past, about letting go and moving on, and about how one cannot stay in a rut forever. Time keeps passing, whether you like it or not, and it doesn’t always produce developments that you’re keen on.

Fundamentally, Matt is a decent character, but doesn’t always act on the best impulses. He is overly concerned about his age, and spends much of the novel comparing himself to people he knew from school and what they’re doing with their lives now. Most of them are introduced with their school superlative and then their current lifestyle, if only to further showcase how many people lose sight of their dreams and end up with a life that they didn’t particularly want. Although I don’t know what it’s like to be forty, many of the characters here are in their twenties, and the way they are portrayed, and especially their reactions to a deadbeat forty-year-old, strike a chord. I’m not so fond on Ginny as a character, but that may just be because we see her from Matt’s eyes. She isn’t painted as evil, and Gayle, as usual, does wonders with three-dimensionality, bringing to life characters who are fully-rounded, full of flaws and complications, the number of which only increase with age.

Gayle’s writing is warm and I always get the feeling that you’re hearing the story in a pub over a pint, just chatting with a mate. Some readers, including myself, may note the surprising number of coincidences that pepper the story, but they can be forgiven because none of them lead to anything good. If a story must have a coincidence in it, then it must lead to bad things, an idea I played with a little in my novel. It ends on a bittersweet note, and with an emphasis on the importance of family, something that seems to recur often in Gayle’s work. Although Matt may be falling apart, there’s no doubt that Mike Gayle is simply getting better with age.